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Jimmie Johnson: ‘I’m smarter, stronger’ after COVID-19 episode

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Having been in an admitted “dark head space” after testing positive for COVID-19 a week ago, Jimmie Johnson said Friday that he is “ready to go” to return to the NASCAR Cup Series and Sunday’s race at Kentucky Speedway.

Johnson was forced to miss last weekend’s race at Indianapolis after testing positive for COVID-19.

Earlier this week, Johnson tested negative twice more than 24 hours apart. After that and being cleared by a doctor, NASCAR reinstated Johnson.

“It’s been an interesting week or so, to have a positive test and then the two negative tests, just the emotional journey you go through and worrying about your safety, your family’s safety, watching a race with someone else in your race car,” Johnson said during a media Zoom conference. “Coming to grips with the reality of all that has been challenging.

“I feel like I’m a smarter, stronger person today experiencing all this. Clearly extremely happy to be reinstated and ready to be back with my race team and that race car.”

Johnson proved to be asymptomatic. He demurred when asked if the original test was a false positive.

“I’ve had no symptoms through this journey,” he said. “There are a lot of scenarios that can play out and to go through them and to form an opinion would just be speculating. At this point, I just don’t think that’s very intelligent or smart to do.

“I followed the protocol that NASCAR has in place and is the same protocol all the other major sports have as well. I’ve been watching the numerous positives take place and also seen many examples of a double negative within a 24-hour period take place and those athletes have been reinstated. It’s a science-based reinstatement process.

“… I’ve followed the protocol, it brings a lot of questions as to where I was in the journey of being positive. There’s a lot of speculation there. I don’t know those answers and I’m the most frustrated person out there, especially living in the world of facts that I do. To not have the facts drives me bananas.”

Johnson pronounced himself fit for Sunday’s race: “I feel great, I’m excited and I’m ready to go. … I’m super excited. In my head of optimism, boy, what a comeback story, the COVID comeback. It would really be a special moment. I’ve always been highly motivated but it would be really cool to have great success Sunday or certainly in the near future with everything.”

As the last week has played out, Johnson has run the gamut of emotions since he was first told about the positive result.

“My first response was just anger, I started cussing and I used every cuss word I knew of and I think I invented a few new ones,” Johnson said with a chuckle. “It was just so weird at the anger because I’ve been asymptomatic. First anger hits and then speculation in my mind and it was like wait a second, there’s nothing good to come of this. No one knows, I don’t know, it’s just time to move on.

“Then I got very excited looking at the facts: I missed just one race, still am above the (playoff) cut line and then the optimism I hope I get that second negative (result) and then I did. I feel like I’m more on the optimistic side of things and really out of the dark head space I was in, and moving in the right direction and looking forward in all this.”

Last Sunday, sitting at his family’s home in Colorado, Johnson admitted it was strange to see someone else – namely fill-in driver Justin Allgaier – in his No. 48 Chevy for the first time since Johnson first began driving that car in Cup late in 2001.

“It’s a weird set of events,” Johnson said. “Saturday night trying to go to sleep was probably the most difficult time for me, knowing I wasn’t going to be in the car.

“It was the peak of emotions going with missing a race and the consecutive start streak coming to an end, not being in a car, my final year (racing in NASCAR), all the things you can think of.

“Sunday morning wasn’t great, but I joined the team call we have before the race, I was able to hear the voices of my crew guys, and give them a shot in the arm and pump them up and just be involved in that team moment. It’s crazy how that relaxed me because I was convinced I wasn’t going to be able to watch the race.”

Johnson’s teleconference lasted nearly 30 minutes. Here are some other topics he covered:

Racing this weekend at Kentucky, one of only four current tracks the seven-time Cup champ has never won on (others are Charlotte Roval, Chicagoland and Watkins Glen): “Kentucky has probably been one of my top two or three most difficult tracks to compete at. I have mixed feelings for the place because when I first started at Hendrick Motorsports, I felt like I lived at that raceway doing testing for the team, getting in my laps and reps as a rookie coming into the sport. I have positive vibes from there, but my race experience there from the Busch Series days and even the Cup (series), has been demanding and tough. I hope to conquer the track from that personal standpoint and then clearly with what I’ve been through, my friends, family and fan base have been through, it’d be nice to leave there with a trophy.”

Why he tweeted out another show of support for Bubba Wallace earlier this week: “With the current events, just letting it be known I stood with Bubba at the beginning of this journey and I continue to stand with Bubba. (It was in response) to the tweet the President put out.”

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Friday’s Xfinity race at Kentucky: Start time, forecast and more

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Time for Part II of the Xfinity Series doubleheader at Kentucky Speedway.

Xfinity teams return to the 1.5-mile speedway tonight for the Alsco 300.

The top-15 finishers from Thursday night’s race have been inverted, resulting in Myatt Snider starting on the pole for tonight’s race. Jesse Little will start second.

Here’s all the info you need for the race.

(All times are Eastern)

START: The command to start engines will be at 8:05 p.m by Tyler Reddick. The green flag is scheduled to wave at 8:14 p.m.

PRERACE: Garage access health screening begins at 10:30 a.m. (teams are assigned specific times). Engine prime and final adjustments are at 6 p.m. Drivers report to their cars at 7:50 p.m. The invocation will be given at 7:57 p.m by Larry Campbell of Kentucky Raceway Ministries. The national anthem will be performed at 7:58 p.m. by Felita LaRock, former lead vocalist, United States Air Force Band of Flight.

DISTANCE: The race is 200 laps (300 miles) around the 1.5-mile speedway.

PACE LAPS: At the direction of race control, the entire field will go down pit road during a pace lap for pit road speed verification. If a driver stops in the pit box for any reason, pull over or slow down, they will start at the rear of the field.

STAGES: Stage 1 ends on Lap 45. Stage 2 ends on Lap 90.

COMPETITION CAUTION: Lap 20

TV/RADIO: FS1 will televise the race. Its coverage begins at 7:30 p.m. Performance Racing Network’s coverage will begin at 7:30 p.m. and also can be heard at goprn.com. SiriusXM NASCAR Radio will carry PRN’s broadcast.

FORECAST: The wunderground.com forecast calls for mostly clear skies, a high of 81 degrees and a 2% of rain predicted at the start of the race.

LAST RACE: Austin Cindric beat Riley Herbst in overtime to win Thursday night’s Kentucky race.

TO THE REAR: Daniel Hemric (driver change for No. 8 car), Justin Allgaier (backup car), Colby Howard (backup), Brandon Jones (backup), Kody Vanderwal (backup), Timmy Hill (backup), Brandon Brown (backup), Ronnie Bassett Jr. (backup), Tommy Joe Martins (unapproved adjustments)

STARTING LINEUP: Click here for the lineup

Crew chief describes ‘frightening’ scene on pit road at Indy

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Crew chief Todd Gordon said it was “frightening” to see rear tire changer Zach Price hit on pit road and then try to scoot away from cars during Sunday’s Cup race at Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

Price, who changes tires for Ryan Blaney’s team, was injured when he was struck by Brennan Poole’s car during a melee near the entrance of pit road early in the race.

Gordon, speaking Monday on “The Morning Drive” on SiriusXM NASCAR Radio, said indications are that Price’s injury was a “fracture someplace in the knee area.”

Price was treated and released from an Indianapolis hospital on Sunday night and traveled home with the team. Gordon said on SiriusXM NASCAR Radio that Price was scheduled to see a doctor Monday.

“Just hope to get him back and get him back going again and healthy,” Gordon said.

Gordon described what he saw as cars made contact.

“A really frightening moment for me,” he said on SiriusXM NASCAR Radio. “I was really terrorized when I saw (Price) drag himself back across the pit box arms only for a while there. As the situation kind of progressed and the medical staff was working with him, I could see in his face he was better off than I thought he was to start with.

“Fortunate that the guys got up and got at least in the air. The jackman (Graham Stoddard) got on top of the car. Just one of those terrible situations. I felt like those accidents happened mid-pit road. That’s why I picked way back there to be behind it.”

Said Justin Allgaier, who was involved in the accident on pit road that led to six cars eventually being eliminated:  “The No. 15 (Poole) actually got in the back of me. I didn’t know if I got the gentleman on (Blaney’s pit crew) or not. Once the wreck started happening in front of us and we all got bottled-up there, one car after another were getting run into.”

Indianapolis’ pit road is the most narrow of all the tracks the Cup Series races. The two travel lanes are 24 feet wide. The pit stall for each team is 15 feet wide.

Winners and losers at Indy

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WINNERS

Kevin HarvickWins Indy for the second year in a row and third time overall. He’s only one Indy victory behind his hero, Rick Mears, who won the Indianapolis 500 four times.

Stewart-Haas Racing — Placed three cars in the top five for the first time this season and fourth time in team history. Kevin Harvick won, Aric Almirola finished third and rookie Cole Custer was fifth. For Almirola, it was his fifth consecutive top-five finish. For Custer, it was his best Cup finish. Don’t forget about Chase Briscoe. He won the Xfinity race for the organization the day before on Indy’s road course.

Matt KensethWhile he had to settle for his fourth career runner-up finish at Indy, it was his best result since returning to the series and driving the No. 42 car for Chip Ganassi Racing. Also of note, the two oldest drivers in the field finished 1-2.

Brad Keselowski — Finished fourth for his third top-four finish at Indy in the last four years. 

Michael McDowellHis seventh-place finish was his best Indy finish and his second top-10 in the last three Cup races this season.

 

 

LOSERS

All those involved in the pit road crash — Brennan  Poole, Ricky Stenhouse Jr., Justin Allgaier, Martin Truex Jr., Corey LaJoie and Ryan Preece were all eventually eliminated because of damage they suffered in a crash on pit road early in the race. Poole’s car hit Zach Price, a rear tire changer for Ryan Blaney’s team. The team stated that Price was treated and released from Methodist Hospital in Indianapolis but did not disclose any injuries.

Those who suffered tire problems — Denny Hamlin, Erik Jones, William Byron, Ryan Newman and Alex Bowman all hit the wall after tires went down. Hamlin crashed while leading with eight laps to go.

What drivers said after Brickyard 400

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Kevin Harvick – winner: “We knew (Denny Hamlin) was gonna be really close on tires and (crew chief) Rodney (Childers) told me on the radio he said, ‘Just make sure you keep the pressure on him,’ and that was all the pressure I could give.  Those guys do a really good job.”

(HOW TOUGH WAS THE BATTLE TO STAY OUT FRONT?  YOU MADE ONE DARING MOVE WHERE YOU WENT TO THE GRASS TO TRY TO GET THE LEAD.) “I didn’t have anymore room. That was for sure, but it’s the Brickyard. This is what i grew up wanting to do as a kid, win at the Brickyard and to be able to come here and have won for the third time is something that I could have never dreamed of.  I want to say hi to my family at home. I know (his son) Keelan will be jacked up. (Daughter) Piper is probably asleep. If not, hello. But just really, really proud of all these guys on this team.”

Matt Kenseth – finished second: “It was a great day for the 42 team today. It’s always nice to be up front and be in contention late in the race. (crew chief) Chad (Johnston )did a great job on the box with his calls today. We had a really good strategy and the best tires coming to the end of the race, lining up fourth behind the leader late in the race, but just couldn’t get it done to take the lead. I tried everything to get to the front, but just didn’t have quite enough to get around the (Harvick). If we had gotten to the lead though, I know we would have been hard to beat. All in all, though, a great race for us. It felt good to run up front and was a confidence booster for all of us. Looking forward to getting to Kentucky and carrying that momentum forward.”

Aric Almirola – finished third: “We had such a great Smithfield Ford Mustang, but we kept having to get off-sequence on our pit strategy because we kept having tires come apart. They’d start to come apart and they would vibrate and shake so bad that I could hardly see where I was going, so we kept having to pit for that and it kept messing us up on our strategy and getting us off-sequence, but fortunately there at the end the caution came out when we needed it to and things finally went our way and we knocked out another top five, so just really proud of all the guys on this team. We’re doing such a good job of being consistent. We’re bringing great race cars and we’re being really consistent running up front, so just really proud of this team and just want to keep it going. It’s fun to run up front like that.”

Brad Keselowski – finished fourth: “I think we were kind of up and down. We started ninth or 10th and just kind of hung around sixth or seventh and couldn’t quite make the pass. Our car was really, really fast in clean air, but I couldn’t run in traffic. We’d run up to cars and get stopped and would kind of ride. Then we started to see the tire issues and tried to be really smart about that and try not to beat ourselves, keep tires on the car. Of course, every time we pitted to put tires on the car we’d cycle to the back, but we were just really mindful to not beat ourselves and that paid off. It gave us a good finish. If I’d have had clean air all day and not had to worry about the tires, we were as good as anybody, but worrying about the tires and not being spectacular in dirty air we kind of had to play it straight with the way it was and ended up with a top five and a fourth-place finish. We’ll take that and move forward.”

Cole Custer – finished fifth: “It is awesome to have all of SHR running well here at Indy. It is Tony’s (Stewart) backyard so it is a huge race for us. For us, our team, this package has been exactly the opposite of what I am used to driving. For it to all come together today means a lot. Thanks to all the guys at SHR for bringing great race cars. HaasTooling.com went national this week, so check them out. I am psyched. I am really happy we finally had it all come together.”

(Why did it come together at Indianapolis?) “I think it is just that I am getting better with the cars and knowing what to expect when we go to the track and getting better at what to bring in the cars to the track. It is a work in progress and having no practice doesn’t help that. I think it is all starting to come to us.”

Kyle Busch – finished sixth: “We just kept getting off on pit strategy with the Skittles America Mix Camry. We had a valve stem come off the left rear (tire) on a stop and that put us in the back. Then we had vibrations at various points throughout the race with different sets of tires so we had to stay on top of that and make sure we changed those. Each time, that would put us on the back. I struggled to pass anybody most of the day, but somehow got spots on restarts. I was able to salvage a sixth-place finish and will head to Kentucky next week.”

Michael McDowell – finished seventh: “Another great finish for us. Another solid top 10.  t’s such a big run for us. I’m so proud of everybody at Front Row (Motorsports) and (owner) Bob Jenkins for giving me this opportunity. It’s taken so long to be this competitive and I’m so thankful to have the opportunity.  To have CarParts.com and Power Stop and Love’s Travel Stops and FR8 Auctions and all our partners throughout the year, Speedco — so many great people that make this possible and we’re doing it  We’re doing it every week. We’re definitely way more competitive than we’ve ever been and it’s a lot of fun.”

Tyler Reddick – finished eighth: “We had a great No. 8 Cheddar’s Scratch Kitchen Chevrolet when we could run in clean air and record some good lap times, but unfortunately we struggled in dirty air, like a lot of our competitors today. Any time we were battling someone side by side or from behind them, our car would just build way too tight and make it tough to gain or hold track position. We just had an up-and-down day, falling back early and then playing some strategy to stay out to start Stage 3 from the fifth spot.

“Once the race restarted for Stage 3, we were able to hold on to that position for a while before having to make our final green flag stop of the day. Unfortunately, a yellow came our when our pit stops were cycling through, trapping us a lap down and forcing us to take the wave-around and get shuffled back in traffic again. When that final yellow flag came out and set us up for a green-white-checkered finish, my crew chief Randall Burnett made the call to come in for four fresh tires and put us 16th for the restart. I was able to capitalize on the final restart with fresher tires and race up to eighth place, which is a great finish for our day. We had to grind it out today, but it turned out in our favor.”

Bubba Wallace – finished ninth: “I guess it is good to be frustrated when you finish in the ninth place. All-in-all, it was a good day for this No. 43 World Wide Technology (WWT) Chevrolet Camaro ZL1 1LE. It was fast. We just did not have the handling underneath us. It was good down the straightaways. It did not want to turn very well – specially behind traffic. One of the more frustrating days being behind cars and just trying to maneuver. So, coming out of there with a top-10 finish is good momentum going to the Kentucky Speedway – another good track for us. We will continue the good vibes and keep staying on Jerry (Baxter, crew chief) to produce good finishes for us.”

Kurt Busch – finished 13th: “This was an Indy race to forget today. We had to make too many unscheduled returns to pit road, which cost us a lot of track position. We just had an unbelievably tight handling Monster Energy Camaro in traffic, I just could cut through the corners to make any passes. Obviously I was hoping for better results for (start) No. 700 today.”

Ty Dillon – finished 14th: “A nice 14th-place finish at Indy for our GEICO Military team. It was a crazy one, but overall, it was a really solid day. From start to finish, we had speed and these are the types of cars that I knew we could bring to the track that would make a difference. I’m very proud of (crew chief) Matt (Borland) and all of my Germain Racing guys for their hard work. To finish the first two stages in 11th and 12th and then finish the race in 14th is a great day for our program. This is our fourth top-15 finish of the season and we are going to keep stacking those up. We’ll go get them in Kentucky and keep this momentum rolling.”

John Hunter Nemechek – finished 15th: “It was a hard-fought day for our No. 38 Fire Alarm Services, Inc. Ford Mustang. We were tight in traffic to start and it was difficult to keep the car turning when I was behind another car. (cew chief) Seth (Barbour) and the crew made some good adjustments throughout the day that helped our handling a lot. We got caught up there at the end, but still had a decent top-15 day.”

Austin Dillon – finished 18th: “We had a really strong Dow Salutes Veterans Chevrolet today at the Brickyard and it was fun to be able to earn stage points in Stages 1 and 2 and lead laps. Our Chevy was handling really well all day so we really only needed to make small adjustments throughout the race. Justin Alexander made great calls to help us get track position. Clean air is huge. We made the decision to stay out when the caution flag was displayed at the end of Stage 3. That put us in a great position for a two-lap shootout to the checkered flag. We were racing for sixth but tangled in Turn 4 coming to the checkers and ended up backing into the wall. Definitely not the finish we wanted or deserved today, but I’m proud of our effort. We had a lot of positives with earning stage points and leading laps.”

Daniel Suarez – finished 20th: “I thought the balance of our Certified Used Vehicles Toyota was good today and we did a good job of keeping up with the track. One thing we know we have to do is keep working to find more speed. The team did a good job dealing with a couple of issues we had, one with the power steering that took a couple of extra stops to fix. We worked hard and got a top 20 out of it, but we also know we are better than that and we know the areas we need to keep working on. We’ll just keep working hard on getting better and if we keep working hard, we will. We all want this.”

William Byron – finished 27th: “Our Liberty University Chevrolet Camaro ZL1 1LE was super-fast today. It just sucks because we have had a lot of these things happen this year. It’s not a fault of anyone, it just happens and it’s a bummer for sure. We’ve had fast cars and it feels like we always have bad luck when we do. That’s what hurts even more. We just need to bring that same speed to Kentucky and hopefully we won’t have any issues there. To be leading the race like that and have a tire issue is, I guess, a good way to go out. We’ll just see what we can do in Kentucky.”

Denny Hamlin – finished 28th: “It’s just tough. I hate it for the FedEx team. We didn’t do what we needed to do and it didn’t work out for us today. I had a fast car obviously and was stretching it out there but wasn’t pushing right front at all. It’s kind of roulette if you’re going to get one that will stay together or not and mine didn’t. You saw the end result. These big races — things don’t go my way all the time. We’re still going to go next week and try to win the next one. We’ll do all we can.”

Alex Bowman – finished 30th: “I wish we could have some luck here in Indy. Every time we come here, something happens. We had a pretty decent car, but through a series of events it just got worse. We suffered a tire issue right before we made a green flag stop, which ended our day. I hate it for my guys and everyone at Hendrick Motorsports because they have been putting in a ton of hours both at track and at the shop. We will move on to Kentucky and I hope we bring some luck with us.”

Erik Jones – finished 33rd: “The Stanley Camry was pretty quick. We were kind of just trying to move to the front and get some track position and I guess we had a right front go down. I felt it pop, and I was kind of along for the ride. It was a pretty hard hit. It’s a shame. The Stanley Camry was fast. I think we just needed to get up front a little more and we could have contended. It’s a shame; it’s kind of the story of our season. We’ve just had a rough year, and things are just not going our way. Hopefully, we can just turn it around, keep bringing fast cars and have things turn around for us.”

Justin Allgaier – finished 37th: “The No. 15 (Brennan Poole) actually got in the back of me. I didn’t know if I got (hit) the gentleman on the No. 12 (Ryan Blaney‘s crew member) or not. Once the wreck started happening in front of us and we all got bottled-up there, one car after another were getting run into. It’s just a shame. I hate it for these guys on this Ally No. 48. They’ve done such a great job. They’ve prepared so well for the circumstances. Obviously, our hearts and thoughts are for Jimmie (Johnson) and his family right now. That’s the most important piece of all this is getting him back to the race track soon. And, I wanted to do well for them today and it’s disappointing to be standing here talking to you (TV interviewer) unfortunately. But we’ll go on. I don’t know what next week looks like yet. We’ll go run the Xfinity Series race and go have a good shot at it. It’s a disappointing way to end the Brickyard 400.”

Martin Truex Jr. – finished 38th: “Terrible. Disappointing. We really only ran one lap up to speed, then we ended up having that engine deal, so it’s just disappointing. Our Auto Owners Camry felt amazing. I thought that we were going to have a great day. We ran a lap and a half, I guess, and it was feeling really good and then engine went down. The deal on pit road, that kind of happened to us last year. I almost aborted. I almost said I’m going to wait and come around the next lap, but the guys really wanted to get under the hood and assess the engine, and come to find out it was just a spark plug problem, so we could have easily fixed it and had a really good day. Thanks to Auto Owners and Toyota and everyone that supports us. We will come back strong and hopefully get them next week.”